1969’s Woodstock festival promised “three days of peace, love and music.” But for a closeted young man, Elliot Tiber, it included sexual liberation and a newfound sense of independence from his repressive parents. His story, as depicted in the coming-of-age comedy Taking Woodstock, represents a return to gay-themed material for Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, The Wedding Banquet).
Star of his own Comedy Central series, Important Things With Demetri Martin, film newcomer Martin stars as the young Elliot, a Manhattan-based interior designer who helps his overbearing Jewish immigrant parents, Jake and Sonia Teichberg (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton), run their ramshackle El Monaco hotel on upstate New York’s White Lake. When Elliot learns that a major music and arts festival has been denied a permit in nearby Wallkill, he invites the organizers, led by charismatic Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), to set up shop at the El Monaco. Suddenly the property is flush with money, guests, and chaos, as hundreds of thousands of hippies descend. While Sonia and many locals respond with chagrin to the flower power (and nudity), Elliot experiences profound epiphanies with help from a handful of free spirits.
Frequent Lee collaborator James Schamus based his screenplay for Taking Woodstock on Tiber’s 2007 memoir Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life. Now an author and comedian, Tiber participated in the Stonewall Riots as well as Woodstock. He handed his book to Lee in 2007, while they were both guests on a San Francisco talk show.
The book describes Tiber’s dichotomous existence: during the week he was an openly gay Manhattanite who delved into S&M. On weekends he was a closet case living with his parents upstate.
“He has a lot in the book about how he grew up, discovered he’s gay, would go to Times Square and those theaters and get touched… a lot of S&M,” Lee said at a press event for the film. The director filmed one scene where Tiber commiserates with a friend in a gay bar (shot at The Eagle) while another man checks him out, but it didn’t make the final cut. Lee and Schamus decided to keep the story focused on those pivotal Woodstock weeks, downplaying the urban gay side of Tiber’s story.
“Elliot picks up the phone one day and makes a call to Mike Lang,” said Schamus, “and three weeks later half a million people help him come out of his shell. That really was the concept of the film.”
Some of those people include a Judy Garland-loving roadie, a bisexual acid-tripping couple (played by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner), and Vilma, a gender-bending security guard with a colorful history played by Liev Schreiber.
The character is actually a composite of several individuals from Tiber’s memoir, including Georgina, “a lesbian protector who had a van parked on the property,” noted Schamus. Vilma was also informed by someone from Schreiber’s own life.
“There was this guy my mother knew named Silverbell,” Schreiber shared. “He was a 62-year-old guy with a long, silver beard and wore long, flowing silk gowns and drove around in a white van with a piano in the back. He was a really wonderful, eccentric character and every once in awhile he’d put on a little lipstick or eyeliner.”
Lee’s penchant for extensive character development (Emile Hirsch, who plays Vietnam vet Billy, says Lee spent an hour discussing what Billy would keep in his pockets) made Vilma a truly alluring role for Schreiber.
“I became really intrigued by Vilma’s history in terms of being a Korean War vet, a father and grandfather, a prostitute, and muscle for the gay community,” Schreiber said. “This was someone who had been through a lot.”
Martin first came to the filmmakers’ attention thanks to a YouTube clip Schamus’ daughter showed him. With a career that consists of writing gigs for Late Night With Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show, and stand-up comedy, Martin admitted that while his character’s homosexuality was an aspect that initially daunted him, it also made the role seem more appetizing.
“When I read the book at first I was worried,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if they got the right guy here’ because there is some pretty graphic stuff.” Martin was both disappointed and relieved when gay and S&M experiences in Manhattan were excised from the film.
“It might have been cool to see how we could of have pulled off some of that, but at the same time I’m kind of glad it wasn’t in there,” he said.
But there is a sequence in which Elliot takes acid and gets intimate with a free loving couple inside a VW van. Martin was especially excited to learn that his co-star in the scene would be Paul Dano.
“I had seen There Will Be Blood and I was like, ‘Man… Dano can really hang,” he recalled. “He was really cool, really mellow. He had these crazy, hippy toenails. When Ang told us to explore each other’s bodies, Paul started rubbing his leg on me and all I could think about was—‘Do not catch my skin with those toenails!’”
Shooting in and around upstate’s New Lebanon (approx. 50 miles from the real Woodstock site), Lee emphasized authenticity. He even had film students shoot footage with Bolex 16mm cameras to recreate iconic scenes from Michael Wadley’s Oscar-winning 1970 Woodstock documentary. However, modern realities did provide their share of challenges, from the occasional cell phone ring to the extras’ buff and primped bodies.
“Kids were skinnier back then,” Schamus noted. “They didn’t have abs or work out. And the ladies we cast, it was like, what happened to your pubic hair? It’s like this Darwinian evolution and somehow this generation lost its pubic hair. But when we got the footage back it was awe-inspiring. In the end, we didn’t have to use a frame of licensed footage.”